This is a review of Maura Brewer’s two most recent films, Surface of Mars and Wonder Woman (764), within the context of recent so called “feminist” developments within Hollywood.
Works: Surface of Mars, 2016. Single-channel video, color, sound. 12:20 minutes.
Wonder Woman (764), 2018, single-channel video, color sound. 14 minutes
Not long after Wonder Woman debuted in cinemas with a record breaking 100.5 million box office weekend (a record for a film helmed by a woman) did the New York Times publish their vilifying story detailing decades of sexual allegations against Harvey Weinstein. As the now all-too familiar story unfolded, a new plot emerged: powerful actresses taking charge of a largely male-dominated industry. It appeared Hollywood was finally starting to catch on, embracing decade old feminist ideals and a desire to adequately represent a more diverse and realistic range of women onscreen. Despite the racist misogyny that continues to command the United States’ highest power, women became hopeful, largely ecstatic that these films- including the women who directed and acted in them- were to be the emblems of a brighter future. Or so it seemed.
Mining and manipulating imagery, sound and music from Hollywood films, the video artist Maura Brewer creates perfect little video essays that read like manuals for detecting ‘false feminism’. In her two most recent video works, Wonder Woman (764), 2018 and Surface of Mars, 2017, Brewer humorously unravels the portrayals of such false ideologies. Merging film and tv footage from several sources, Brewer creates concise (12 and 14 minutes respectively) narrative-guided essays that in both cases centers on a singular woman. Combining a level of satire and wit with a genuine desire to teach, Brewer shows us how to detect fake female emancipation on screen.
In the Surface of Mars, the introduction commences with the sprawling red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. A female narrator begins to list Hollywood films that used the desert as a scene for imaginative exploitation- as Mars, or other alien landscapes- starting with 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia and ending with 2015’s The Martian. Lines and circles are drawn onto the landscape, symbols chime, and the narrator harmoniously guides us through a sequence of illustrations describing how the landscape has been adapted by film. Appropriating imagery, sound and music from three separate films (The Martian by Ridley Scott, 2015; Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow, 2012; and Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, 2014) the Surface of Mars takes cue from the red desert and focuses on one red-headed actress: Jessica Chastain. Like the biblical Mary herself, Chastain appears throughout the video essay often within a triptych, so as to compare the three characters she plays within these films side by side. Brewer, reminiscent of an art history teacher presenting the first lesson, gently points out the obvious features between all three characters. Each name starts with an M. Each character has red hair. Each character is depressed. Like the red desert itself, Brewer reveals Chastain as a vessel of empty female empowerment, used no differently than a prop.
Courtesy of Maura Brewer.
Despite seemingly stylistic and factual differences, the three films used in Surface of Mars exhibit astounding similarities. While Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty followed the search for Osama Bin Laden – “the greatest manhunt in history” (American propaganda mixed with Hollywood patriotism), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar balanced fantastic science with romantic longing (Hollywood optimism mixed with daddy guilt), while The Martian spoke to mankind’s ability to persevere despite all obstacles (Hollywood’s ability to continue colonizing and appropriating whatever the hell they want to), all three films share one singular theme- the enduring presence of an absent male and the woman forever trying to reach him. While each of the characters played by Chastain speaks to the language of popular feminism - each one works in a male dominated field, performs important roles, wears a suit- they are one and the same. Despite playing high-achieving career women, Chastain’s characters are no different from the lost, love-stricken and depressed souls of 1990’s romantic comedies. She may be strong, but she is always controlled: by NASA (The Martian), Osama Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty) and her own father (Intersteller). Always by Hollywood.
What Brewer demonstrates comes down to simple packaging; peel back the layers and the cheap infrastructure is revealed. Seemingly innocuous, the video’s silly academic structuralism lends a satirical whip- the films are vacant portrayals of a future in which women and men work equally side by side. Unsurprisingly, Brewer’s pointed demonstration served as neat introduction to the unfolding events that took place in Hollywood in 2017. Beginning with Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement and #timesup, actresses and other female power players began to speak out and Hollywood began to buckle. Women were finally coming forward to denounce the rampant sexual discrimination faced in the industry, endured in spite of their high-ranking celebrity status, beauty and privilege. Eloquent displays of alliance demonstrated at the 2018 Golden Globes were carried forward with public letters, twitter blasts and donations to womens funds. Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman was the crowning moment- a film directed by a woman and entirely centered on a powerful, in-command female lead. Gone were the days of hyper-sexualized, unrealistic heroines. The film was heralded as a feminist success even before arriving in theatres, with drums beating down the countdown to mark its opening glory.
Courtesy of Maura Brewer.
Ecstatic enthusiasm was garnered no less for Wonder Woman as it was for Israeli actress Gal Gadot. Stunning good looks aside, Gadot was undoubtedly chosen as much for her past IDF services (she served as a combat instructor during her required enlistment in the Israeli military) as for her acting achievements, including The Fast & the Furious and winning Miss Israel in 2004. While the Israeli-Hollywood connection would be too obvious to comment on, Brewer instead saw a greater connection, one that had been so droned out from the cacophony of ecstatic media welcoming the film. Her 14 minute video Wonder Woman (764) instead takes a historically relevant glance, analyzing the film within the context of Emily Dickinson’s poem My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun (764).
Wonder Woman (764) employs many of the same methodological strategies used in Brewer’s previous film. With the use of a narrator (in this case Brewer), the protagonist is circled, quantitative elements are labeled and subjective aspects of the film underlined. For those paying close attention, the original 1977 Star Wars theme song plays in the background, as Brewer explains that destiny is a code that must be deciphered. Analyzing Wonder Woman the film, the video acts like a guide to “reveal the significant hidden messages in the structure of the contemporary superhero film” by drawing a parallel between Wonder Woman and Emily Dickinson. Through a detailed analysis of the plot, Brewer questions the validity of Wonder Woman’s actions in light of the poem’s own overarching themes. (No less referencing the same actions performed unto this great literary giant, as Dickinson’s own poem has been subjected to numerous interpretations due to her use of ‘master’, and undoubtedly, her own sex). What Brewer is able to demonstrate is that Wonder Woman and Dickinson are one and the same: both women are guided by a higher power- Master, God, Father- rather than their own independent choices. Just as Dickinson realizes that HE directs her actions, Wonder Woman also learns that she herself is the god-killer, the weapon made by Zeus (God/ Creator/ Dad). As the scenes unfold, Brewer asks the following question, to Diana, Dickinson, us:
“This is your inner voice. When you read this text, does the inner voice that you hear really belong to you? Or is this inner voice the interpretation of external authority, thought and ideas that belong to me but that you misrecognize as your own?”
Courtesy of Maura Brewer.
The parallels drawn by Brewer between Dickinson and Wonder Woman prove doubly fruitful, for it is not only their actions that are guided but also the fields in which their talents are wielded. From Dickinson to Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman to Gal Gadot, Gal Gadot to producers, agents and the rest of Hollywood, the metaphor slowly unravels a simple truth: these women and their perceived talents (whether historicized, imagined or played) are forever controlled by the underlying presence of a man. Despite perceived progress in Hollywood, many films are merely adopting feminist attributes without actually embodying them. Brewer shows us that these Hollywood constructs are false- these characters are empty shells, still guided by men. Removing a manipulative creep like Harvey Weinstein is simply like removing a mole- the cancer is still underneath. Despite being centered on and directed by a woman, the movie Wonder Woman reveals an individual no more in command of her own body and mind than Jessica Chastain is in control of the depressed characters offered to her by the industry. The numbers might be up, but the script is still the same. Whether he be God, lover, director or writer, the desired actions and fantasies of a woman seem forever destined by the men who oversee her, no matter how hidden they may be. With the same wit and allusion as Dickinson herself, Brewer lifts the curtain to reveal the trick: female emancipation on screen is no more real than the sword of the god-killer itself.
Clever, humorous and most importantly compact, Surface of Mars and Wonder Woman (764) serve like little micro-doses of stark reality to the distractions of perceived progression. Clear and concise, these works refreshingly stray away from the heady-intellectualism of most cultural-critiquing work, instead adopting an essay format more akin to reading a picture book. Ultimately, it’s the accessibility that places these works into a class of their own, and elevates Brewer to a kind of guiding feminist decoder of the Dickensian type. Clearing away the hype and breaking down the codes, Brewer plainly reveals these “independent” “strong” feminists as the desirable, and most importantly, fuckable, women they are meant to be. Like a parent pointing to the illustrated flower, Brewer lovingly guides us through the foils wielded by Hollywood so that we may too see through the illusion.